The First Explorers of the Maya World

by Jeanine Lee Kitchel ©

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One hundred and sixty years ago John Lloyd Stephens, along with artist Frederick Catherwood, braved the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala, and Honduras to become the first English-speaking travelers to explore this region originally known only by the Maya.

Stephens, born in 1805 in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, is most well known for his two travel classics: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). Though a lawyer by profession with a degree from Columbia, a slight health affliction gave Stephens the perfect excuse for a two-year sabbatical in Europe and the Mediterranean. He first visited Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Germany and France -- and then set off for Egypt to view the pyramids. In 1837 he published accounts of these travels, which were well received, earning him the title, ‘the American Traveler.’ By this time, archaeological exploration was in his bones.

On a trip to London he met Frederick Catherwood, an Englishman, who was already well known for his drawings of archaeological digs in Egypt and Jerusalem. Catherwood’s talent (as illustrated in Stephens’ books) lay in his ability to portray ancient monuments with great accuracy.

In 1839 President Martin Van Buren appointed Stephens as special ambassador to Central America for the purpose of negotiating treaties with several countries. Stephens immediately contacted Catherwood requesting he accompany him on the project. They set out for Central America. This journey spawned Stephen’s first work on the Maya, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. So popular was it that 12 editions were printed the first year of publication creating what is now commonplace but then a phenomenon: a bestselling author, granting Stephens the leisure to follow his bliss-- exploration-- thus freeing him from his law career.

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In the preface of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Stephens states it is the most extensive journey made by a foreigner to the Yucatan Peninsula, containing accounts of 44 ruined cities where antiquarian remains were found.

According to Stephens, the existence of most of these ruins was unknown to the residents of Merida, Yucatan’s capital, as few had been visited by outsiders. Desolate and overgrown with trees, the only evidence of these structures appeared as grass-covered mounds. To the untrained eye, it would take a wild stretch of imagination to visualize the former grandeur of these sites.

When Stephens, Catherwood and their attending physician, Dr. Cabot of Boston, first started out from Merida, they had “no servants in attendance,” a travesty for explorers of that time. They had no map of the Yucatan as none existed. The closest thing they could find that would set them in the right direction was a map in manuscript form only, given to them by Dona Joaquina Peon, with the disclaimer that it was inaccurate. So for Stephens and Catherwood, their expedition truly was a journey into the unknown, and it would include logging the number of hours from village to village and the pace of their horses to better assist the next explorers who would eventually follow in their footsteps.

Occasionally Catherwood shot the latitude of an area for their records, and the expedition measured distance in leagues, not miles.

One wonders how Stephens prepared for this type of journey. What resources and materials were required? In his books, Stephens jumped right into the explorations themselves with little fanfare given to his preparations, but no doubt they were lengthy and costly. Catherwood was determined to make use of the Daguerreotype camera (on the first expedition) and as no one in their group knew how to use it, the men set up a quick portrait taking business in their Merida hotel before heading into the field. This familiarized them with the camera, and after developing confidence in its use; they changed hats, became explorers again, and headed into the Yucatan jungles.

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The once great city Mayapan, 47 miles southeast of Merida, was their first ruin sighting. “For ages, these ruins went unnoticed,” Stephens commented. Now linked to the end of the Post Classic Period, Mayapan was founded in 1007 by the great ruler Kukulkan. After the fall of Chichen Itza around 1200, Mayapan became the dominant force in the Maya world, their center of civilization before the Spanish arrival. It was the capital of a confederation, which included Chichen Itza and Uxmal. One of the few known walled cities, covering four square kilometers, this measure signified the unstable condition the city faced with its neighbors. As no great temples existed in Mayapan, this era was considered a time when rulers were more interested in warfare than in appeasing the gods with extravagant shrines, Stephens notes.

On the region, Stephens states that before the Spanish invasion, the area was known only as Maya. It was the Spanish who named it Yucatan, coming, Stephens believes, from one of two sources: either from the word for the plant, ‘yucca’ or ‘yuca,’ and ‘tale’ or ‘thale’ which is the earth in which the yucca plant grows. His other theory is that when the Maya were asked by the Spaniards, “What is this country?” the answer in Mayan was, “I do not understand these words,” which has some resemblance (according to Stephens) to the pronunciation of the word ‘Yucatan.’ But the local population never accepted this name and only called the land ‘Maya.’

After roughly 14 months of continuous exploring both men came down regularly with tropical fevers. Hounded by garrapatas (a biting insect) and fever at Uxmal, Catherwood in particular had a bad time of it. Stephens described Catherwood as working in spite of his affliction, however, standing on top of crudely made scaffolding or standing in mud, veiled with a net and wearing clumsy gloves to protect his hands from mosquitoes.

At first, Catherwood had great difficulty in depicting the designs of the Maya monuments (as stated in his work Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan in 1844), due to their complexity and because they were so different from anything he had previously seen. But with the aid first of the Daguerreotype and then a camera lucida (precursor to the modern camera) he developed a technique for fine-tuning his expedition drawings. His renderings were so accurate that many are still useful today.

Eventually Catherwood collapsed, and then both Stephens and Cabot came down with malarial chills. On New Year’s Day they departed from Uxmal, and Stephens said they never looked back. “All interest we had felt in the place was gone, and we only wanted to get away. Silent and desolate as we found them, we left the ruins of Uxmal again to be overgrown with trees, to crumble, to fall, and perhaps in a few generations to become, like others scattered over the country, mere shapeless and nameless mounds.” Although both Stephens and Catherwood would later return to Yucatan in 1842 to complete the work they had begun, their first corroboration ended sooner than expected due to tropical disease.

Stephens’ Maya explorations took him to many named pyramid sites -- Uxmal, Labna, Kabah, Mayapan, Chichen Itza and Tulum-- and many lesser known sites--Chunhuhu, Iturbide, Labphak, Kewick, Macoba, Xampon. He covered thousands of miles in his journeys, explored numerous caves and cenotes, met hundreds of Maya, heard countless tales of adventure, flirted with the Maya calendar, slept in pyramids, and from these excursions, two famous books evolved, still popular 160 years after first publication.

After his adventures in Yucatan he went on to become director of a U.S. steamship company, Ocean Steam Navigation, then took an interest in Hudson River Railroad, which went into partnership with Panama Railroad Company. In 1849 he became Vice President of Panama Railroad Company, negotiating contracts for the railroad, and because of his previous explorations, spent two years supervising the surveys there.

John Lloyd Stephens died in New York City in 1852 after contracting a tropical disease during his stay in Panama. Although one of the forerunners in the U.S. excursion into excavating Panama and laying groundwork for the future of the Panama Canal, Stephens will be forever remembered as the intrepid explorer who, along with his accomplished artist friend Frederick Catherwood, toiled through the jungles of the Yucatan bringing the world its first view --in artist sketches-- of this fascinating civilization. Shortly after their return to the States in 1842, the Caste War of the Yucatan broke out, closing the Yucatan’s borders to foreigners for nearly 60 years. But the writings and renderings of these two men stoked the imaginations of countless minds on two continents, as the world clamored to know more about this little-known, advanced civilization. Their tale, this incident of travel in Yucatan, kept the world hanging on for half a century until the next installment would come on the mysterious Maya, by yet another explorer of the Yucatan.

(Jeanine Lee Kitchel lives in Puerto Morelos. Her nonfiction travel adventure, “Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya” -Enchanted Island Press $15 USD- is available locally, and from amazon.com, and from www.yucatantales.com . Email the author at casamaya@yahoo.com . This article is the second in a series, soon to be a book, titled Explorers of the Yucatan).


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